Out of joint
I LOVE Epiphany. The hymns are great, and the scripture readings are evocative and as richly dense as a Galette des Rois. These seasonal cakes are delicious — as long as no one chokes on a bean — and even the gin that swirls with my tonic is called “Three Kings” because its botanicals include myrrh and frankincense.
Some of the poetry written for Epiphanytide resuscitates the heart. I will never forget hearing Vanessa Redgrave reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”; by the end, we all felt restlessly unhappy in our “old dispensation”, longing for the breakthrough in life which would feel like a birth. I’m guessing that this is probably how most of us are feeling at the beginning of this new year.
THAT other Epiphany tradition of chalking our homes with “CMB” might be a little more heartfelt than usual. Christus Mansionem Benedicat — Christ bless this house — feels more prayerfully urgent as we are told to stay inside our houses to save life.
“CMB”, of course, also refers to the names of the Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, although I’ve always preferred their Syrian names of Larvandad, Harmisdas, and Gushnasaph. In Autun Cathedral, they are depicted lying in bed together (not complying, it seems, with Bishops’ Guidelines), their crowns like nightcaps. As the angel wakes them, you see that one is wide awake, one is bleary-eyed, and the other is still snoring, beautifully encapsulating the spiritual conditions of humanity.
If the Magi were more like magicians, of course, the gold and incense might have been part of their show, and laying them down before the child would then have been a much more significant act as they left the props of a smoke-and-mirror life in the stable and went home “by another road”. The question what I would have left, had I been with them that night, haunts me — because the door is still open.
Bean and gone
BEANS also came up in conversation with my old friend Aled Jones recently, when he interviewed me for Songs of Praise. I officiated at his marriage 20 years ago, and then baptised his first child, who, Aled said as the cameras rolled, was fondly known as Bean, because “that’s what she looked like when we first saw her on the scan screen.”
“Do you remember me holding her at her christening, Mark?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” I replied a bit too quickly, “a little bean and a has-been”. Fortunately, Aled found this hilarious, which sums up his fun and generous soul.
The exchange was not included in the progamme.
Gift to be free
I SHALL miss the pantomime this year. Oh yes, I will. I once saw the much missed Barbara Windsor in panto, with the outrageous Christopher Biggins playing Dame. Biggins came on in a dress that defies description. “It’s my Brexit dress,” he said. “Everyone thinks they want me out of it, but when it happens they’re not so sure.”
The pantomime that has been taking place in the White House for the past four years is, thankfully, ending. Trump’s presidential career? It’s behind you! Much study will be done on his global legacy, not least his cynical and corrosive use of language, telling blatant lies to see what whirlwinds they would whip up. There is evidence that this approach has crossed the Atlantic. What is also of concern is that, among countries with more than one million people, for the first time this century there are now fewer democracies than there are non-democratic regimes.
THE date 7 January used to be known as St Distaff’s Day. The Christmas season over, it was an opportunity to have one last blast, playing pranks on each other before getting back to work. Robert Herrick famously wrote a poem about it, which ends:
Give Saint Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And, next morrow, everyone
To his own vocation.
I cannot help thinking that, as we pick up the pieces of populism, pandemic, and political pranks, it’s time for Christians to recall our vocation to enable the common good in whatever ways we can. Never before in my lifetime has the “dignity” of being human — given to us as a gift, and shared in by the incarnation that we celebrate — been so threatened.
What makes me both proud of, and hopeful about, the Church is when we courageously uphold this dignity in the poor and forgotten, or any of those not thought to belong in some perverted version of a “civilised” society. My New Year’s wish is that, over the coming months, we will all step up a bit more to make decision-makers — including ourselves — accountable to a universal human dignity.
“If life has a second edition”, John Clare wrote, “how I would correct the proofs.” A new year feels like a good place to start some editing.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.